Leader: President Trump’s “Nationalist International”

Trump prefers dictators to democratic leaders because the latter expect him to understand political complexity and nuance.

NS

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After meeting Kim Jong-un in Singapore on 12 June, Donald Trump lavishly praised the North Korean dictator. He described him as “very talented” and “smart”, and defended him to the press as having had it “tough”. The US president showed the leaders of America’s closest allies no such generosity of spirit. The G7 summit, held immediately before Mr Trump flew to Singapore to meet Mr Kim, was calamitous, to the point where the spectre of a full-blown trade war emerged. “China and all of the other places, Germany, the European Union is a disaster for us,” Mr Trump declared in an interview on 12 June.

When Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau gave a press conference mildly rebuking Mr Trump for imposing tariffs on exports to the US, Mr Trump took umbrage. “He shouldn’t have done that,” he told reporters. “That was a mistake. That’s going to cost him a lot of money.”

Tellingly, Mr Trump reserved his greatest insult for Mr Trudeau: saying that he was “weak”.

The president felt personally slighted by Mr Trudeau without understanding that it was he who had begun the conflagration by threatening trade barriers. It is obvious that Mr Trump dislikes being lectured to by technocratic leaders, especially Angela Merkel or Theresa May, who are women in positions of equal status. He prefers dictators to democratic leaders because the latter expect him to understand political complexity and nuance.

Yet the intricacies of international trade, ironically for one whose self-image is so fixated on his business nous, escape him: the president is bored by detail.

The foreign governments that have profited most from his nationalist administration are those that have indulged him. Saudi Arabia, which gave Mr Trump a lavish red-carpet reception followed by a bizarre ritual involving a glowing golden orb, was rewarded with a $110bn arms deal.

If there is a Trump doctrine, it is that he sees other nations, especially democratic ones, not as allies but as competitors in a zero-sum game, as part of a new age of great power rivalry.

Yet through his admiration of autocrats, Mr Trump is forging what the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis calls “the Nationalist International”. In Mr Kim, the US president has encountered a fellow autocratic strongman to admire; though others such as Vladimir Putin – whose return to the G7 Mr Trump has preposterously demanded – consider the president an easy target for manipulation.

For Mr Trump, it seems to matter little that the agreement he reached with Mr Kim in Singapore was largely symbolic: the fact of being seen to do a deal, no matter how meaningless, was an end in itself.

 

This article appears in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?